Sterling Bailey has a big smile that expands when you ask him about starting in UGA’s season opener against Clemson.
He perks up — his back a little bit straighter, his voice a little more commanding.
It’ll be the first time the soft-spoken defensive end has seen significant action in a football game since 2010 — his senior year of high school.
And what’ll be running through his head as he lines up in Death Valley on Aug. 31?
“Jesus, help me,” Bailey said with a laugh last week.
The East Hall product, who was ranked as the eighth defensive end nationally out of high school, has had an injury-laden career thus far at UGA, including a redshirt season as a freshman. He saw action in just three games last season after undergoing surgery on a torn labrum and a torn metatarsal ligament in March 2011 and January 2012, respectively.
His stat sheet is sparse — just one tackle and one quarterback hurry.
But the 6-foot-3, 282-pound redshirt sophomore will have a chance to fill out that stat sheet, as he is listed as a starting defensive end opposite senior Garrison Smith.
“I’m just still trying to work hard to keep it,” Bailey said of his starting spot.
Bailey earned the defense’s True Grit Award after spring practice concluded this year, and drew the praise of and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and defensive line Chris Wilson, who Bailey said he enjoys working with.
He has also dropped 13 pounds from the start of spring practice to the start of preseason camp, down from 295.
Bailey said he met with Georgia’s nutrition team to help him get into better playing shape, which is still a work in progress.
He is trying knock off three years of rust, and help build a reputation for an unproven Georgia defensive line that lost starters and significant contributors — John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers — to graduation and the NFL after last season.
“He’s made big steps,” Smith said. “He’s still got to get into game shape because he hasn’t played in like three years. He’s just coming around.”
A part of that “coming around” process has been incorporating his hands more into his pass rush, which Bailey said is one of his biggest strengths, and coming off the ball faster and more aggressively.
“I still work on that just because if I focus on one thing too much, I could lose a little bit of what I already have,” Bailey said. “I just work on every little thing.”
With the injury hurdles he’s had to leap and such a gap in his time as a starter, Bailey, who turns 21 next month, has turned to his parents for encouragement and lessons in practicing patience.
“Always sending me Bible verses, always telling me, ‘You worked hard to get to this point. Just keep working harder. Don’t let it slip away,’ “ Bailey said.
Laura and Kevin Bailey will make the drive from Gainesville to Clemson to watch their son start for the first time in nearly three years.
And their son’s smile will likely been easy to spot through his face mask.
“He’s excited because once you haven’t played in so long, it’s just exciting when you finally get back out there,” Smith said.